At Meural, we're driven by art democratization and transparency—and so we've developed a series at the intersection of art and commerce. Each installment provides an objective, accessible debriefing of a financial aspect of the art industry. Read more about the series' objective and what's to come.

The Armory Show, 1913

by Elinor Case-Pethica

In 1970, there were three international art fairs. Today, there are 270 major fairs, with more appearing each year. As one of the fastest growing sectors of the art market, art fairs are becoming subject to greater scrutiny. 

An art fair is essentially a trade show, with all major galleries and dealers gathered under one massive roof to show their latest offerings. A common critique of the art fair system is that it lowers the experience of viewing and purchasing art to one reminiscent of shopping at the grocery store. It is true that the fairs are packed to the gunnels with visual stimuli, and a visit to one is more likely to be full of hustle and bustle than quiet contemplation of the work, but the busyness is also a sign of how international the events are. While questioning whether or not art fairs are a philosophically pleasant or appropriate venue to view art is important, the larger question to be asked is about the fair’s effect on how gallerists do business, and the type of art and artist who are subsequently able to succeed in the market environment.

A recent series of paintings by Eric Fischl, portraying art fair-goers

A 2014 estimate attributed 20% of art market business to art fairs: $10.9 billion in transactions. For dealers, art fairs represent an average of 60% of their business, and for some as much as 90%. It is not only profitable for galleries to participate in art fairs for this reason, but has also become expected. For a major gallery not to attend any art fairs would be a faux pas—four fairs per year is a commonly stated baseline attendance rate.

People queue to enter the Art Basel exhibition space

Attendance can be quite expensive. Booking a booth comes with a fee, as does shipping, insurance and lodgings. For instance, a case study of expenses at Art Basel totals out to $122,550—an overhead expense that comes with no guarantee of resulting sales. While each fair incurs different costs, to participate in four per year costs upward of $450,000 annually. To put this number in useful perspective, rental prices on a ground-floor exhibition space in Chelsea run at around $125 per square foot. The dealer/gallery sector of the art market is roughly 52% by value, so a shift in their business norms represents a vast change for the market at large. 

The high price of taking part in an art fair has to be weighed against the potential benefits of a gallery’s greater financial flexibility. Being less dependent on selling out a whole show, for instance, can allow the gallery to exhibit more challenging or experimental work. A smaller gallery may need to juggle the pros and cons of attending a fair versus moving into a larger or more optimally located exhibition space—quite difficult to say which decision would do more to further establish the gallery.

The world's top galleries, all squeezed into one room

The art fair boom can be attributed at least in part to the aura of glamour and celebrity that surrounds the events. The amount of money and publicity circling the larger fairs by far outweighs that of gallery openings or museum functions. We may be seeing a shift towards art fairs as the major mode of art viewing, as focus moves away from more traditional venues. As the trend towards fairs continues to develop, eyes should be on the type of art and artist emerging from the new system.

Statistics from Blouin, TEFAF, and CINOA.